South Salt Lake • Utah leaders came together Wednesday on a vacant lot in South Salt Lake to break ground for the Huntsman Mental Health Institute’s Crisis Center, which they say has the potential to make the state a leader on mental health issues.
Plans call for the 9-acre parcel, next to a small pasture where horses roam, to eventually become a campus, called the Campus of Hope, dedicated to mental health research and care.
“This is the commitment that the state of Utah is making to address the tsunami of mental health needs,” Dr. Mark Rapaport, CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute said.
The Crisis Care Center is set to open in late 2023. It will treat up to 30 people needing short-term stabilization care — like those who find themselves in the midst of a mental crisis. It also includes a 24-bed inpatient facility for those needing long-term care. The center is being funded by the Huntsman Foundation and Salt Lake County.
For years, Utah has ranked among the worst states for mental health, especially among children and young adults. This campus is a significant step, leaders said Wednesday, toward addressing Utah’s mental health needs.
The center is meant to close gaps at the current crisis center on the University of Utah campus. Before the coronavirus pandemic, which exacerbated already poor mental health conditions in this state, that center was turning away more than 30 people in crisis per month because there wasn’t another room, said Dr. Michael L. Good, CEO of the University of Utah Health.
This new center, which will eventually include a space to research mental illness and new treatments, represents a “pivotal moment for healthcare in the state of Utah,” he said.
Gov. Spencer Cox told attendees that for years his conversations about how to improve mental health in Utah focused on two things: decreasing stigma around mental illness and increasing capacity for treatment.
Through the Live On campaign, announced last year, the state hopes to address the stigma.
And it’s making space for treatment in an area where people need it most, Rapaport said.
“If you look through those trees,” he told attendees, ”you’d see the jail. Jails are the largest site of psychiatric inpatient care in the United States today.”
“Look over there,” he continued, “you see one of our homeless shelters.”
“Mental health problems are rampant in homeless individuals,” he said, “and it’s one of the major reasons that homelessness has become an intractable problem.”
The center promises to give patients personalized treatment, including a recovery plan, whenever they leave.
Charlie Ellis told attendees Wednesday that was not what he experienced a few years ago when a friend called a crisis line to get him help during a mental breakdown.
Police found him in a parking lot, he said. They then handcuffed and “pink-sheeted” Ellis, meaning officers thought he needed involuntary mental health treatment, and took him to the emergency room for evaluation.
In about an hour, medical staff concluded he wasn’t a threat to himself. Three hours after that, he was back out of treatment “with no counseling, no future plan of follow up,” Ellis said. The event left him with several thousand dollars in medical bills.
Emergency room doctors are experts at dealing with physical trauma, Ellis said, not mental trauma.
Cox said the center will take Utah from “laggard to leader” in the mental health field. Rapaport said it would “catapult” the state to being one of the best in the nation. Jennifer Huntsman Parkin, with the Huntsman Foundation, called it “a place of refuge for anyone and everyone seeking help from the storms of mental health.”
After the speeches, state leaders and others involved in building the crisis center walked to line of waiting shovels, hardhats and a fresh bed of dirt. As cameras clicked, they sunk sunk shovels into the dirt, grabbed a scoop and threw it forward.
Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune, is a member of the Huntsman family, who are the major benefactors of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.